Friday, May 23, 2014

Litter Could Soon Be A Thing of the Past And Why It Won’t

A lot is being made in the news media now about the “Internet of Things.”  I’ve read recently that the cost of a sensor, those little gizmos that connect things to the Internet, is a dime or less and falling.

This is no longer just about RFID tags.

Some sensors are already the size of your fingertip, and globally, the annual market for smart sensors will be $21.60 billion globally by 2019.

We’ve probably all heard and read recently that they have already been deployed in many cities to help people identify the location of vacant parking spaces and to help improve delivery routes by eliminating left hand turns and to identify parts in need of replacement.

One day very soon we may get a text message warning us when one of our appliances is about to fail, long before leaks or spoilage occur and in time to get it repaired without inconvenience.

I suspect that one day in the not too far distant future, tiny sensors will be so thoroughly embedded throughout products that we use that they may help trace the ownership of materials we find illegally dumped in streams and along roadsides.

Shoot, they may even be used one day to trace the lifecycle of plastic grocery bags and other types of plastic film.

I live in Durham, North Carolina where they recently conducted Creek Week, an annual event where volunteers engage in a cleanup coordinated by ten or so city and county agencies along with an equal number of non-profits.

Along 16 miles of streams here at 19 different sites worked by more than 300 volunteers a few weeks ago, two tons of trash was retrieved along with almost 1,500 pounds of recyclables.

Click here and go to page 9 of a report to see the statewide results of this effort last year.

Major components are lightweight plastic grocery bags and polystyrene used for packaging and as eating and drinking utensils.

They also installed a 750 sq, ft. rain garden and planted a couple of dozen trees.

This is part of an effort since 2011 that has resulted in the installation of nearly 100 rain gardens by City Stormwater Services alone, part of nearly 250 “rain catcher” efforts in all.

Rain catchers attempt to hold runoff in place so it can be purified by natural ecoservice providers such as trees, rather than carrying pollutants into waterways and supplies.

No word on whether any forensics were done to identify upstream polluters.

Word is the Sheriff and Police departments refuse to follow up anyway. That is supported by comparing such citations and convictions here with other counties (page 21.)

Sending a signal that it doesn’t care either, the City is also trying to eliminate three solid waste inspectors whose job it is to follow up.

This is what happens when “pie-slicing” is estranged from outcomes, and so-called strategic plans have no overarching strategy.

But I bet if we got serious and traced it back to those who illegally dump garbage including construction waste, old tires, plumbing and kitchen fixtures in urban streams and other litter along roadsides, they would find that isn’t their only illegal behavior.

I am sure if they did, though, violators would scream invasion of privacy, for having sensors laced into products such as those pulled out of the streams that some day would actually make all of us more accountable for harmful actions to others.

Virtually invisible now, if sensors become as prolific as shown in Cisco’s infographic in this blog, then it will become a whole lot easier to address the 4% of Americans who intentionally litter and the 17% who do so out of laziness instead of just cleaning up after themselves.

My thinking that sensors could be useful for follow up or as a deterrent could be reality in six to ten years.

Duke graduate students will soon conduct an assessment for Durham storm water services, of the litter discarded in the part of downtown where storms carry it into watersheds to the north.

The other part of downtown drains to a watershed to the south because this area lies along both sides of ridge where the railroad was run in the mid-1800s.

I hope these students can utilize inexpensive wireless cameras to observe behavior vs. just assessing where I has accumulated.

I’ve mentioned to city and county officials that they could use these cameras as follow up at dumping sites along streams but usually get a response of futility from those involved.

While those who roll their eyes have no better suggestion, I’ve learned that neither the city nor county of Durham has an agency designated for stream clean up, relying instead on these episodic clean up events.

No wonder we/they can’t get a handle on this problem.  Alas, I suspect they also won’t have time to bother following up on data provided by sensors when they become ubiquitous.

Maybe what’s missing among these public servants is passion and determination, not technology.

So far the nod for those attributes seem to go instead to those who pollute streams and roadsides.

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